(From left) Narayan Reddy, organic farmer; Devinder Sharma, chairman of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security; T.M. Manjunath, former director of Monsanto Research; and Ramanjini Gowda, Head of the Department of Biotechnology, UAS, Bangalore, at a public discussion in Bangalore on Monday.
(pic from The Hindu, Dec 8)
This was followed by a public debate at the Bangalore International Club on Dec 4, where I shared the dias with Dr K K Narayanan, Managing Director of Methelix Life Sciences, Bangalore. The next public debate that I participated was at the Institute for Agricultural Technologies (IAT) at Bangalore on Dec 7. Organised by a Bangalore-based NGO, Civic, it had four panelists: Dr T M Manjunath, former Director of Research, Monsanto; Dr P H Ramanjinigowda, Head, Depart of Biotechnology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore; the distinguished organic farmer Dr Narayan Reddy and I.
I will not go into the merits and demerits of the arguments raised, but what I feel there is a dire need to answer some of the commonly asked questions. I am framing below four arguments from the proponents of GM technology that emerged in these interactions. To borrow from what George Monbiot says (he said it in the context of the ongoing debate about Climate Change), and to relate it to the debate on GM crops, it is quite obvious that a 'denial industry' is fast at work. This refers to those who are paid to say that GM crops/foods pose no threat to human health and environment. As he says, and I agree, the great majority of people who believe this have not been paid, have been duped.
You keep stumbling across familiar phrases and concepts which you can see every day on the comment threads. These comments are often planted by PR companies and hired experts. I wasn't therefore taken by surprise to hear the same arguments again and again. Let us look at some of the prominent arguments.
Argument 1: There are over 1 billion people living in hunger worldwide, and their number will swell to over 2 billion by the end of 2020. Therefore the world needs to produce more, and need to adopt GM crops.
It is true that the world has 1.02 billion people living in hunger. I feel this is an understatement, and the number of hungry is several times more than what the FAO computes. But given the figures of the hungry population, does it mean that there is shortage of food in the world? The answer is No. We have 6.7 billion people on Earth today, and the food we produce in the world today is good enough for 11.5 billion people, which means we produce twice the quantity of food that we require today.
Why there is hunger in the world is because one part of the world is eating more and the other part of the world is left to starve. It is a political question, and needs a political will to eradicate hunger.
Argument 2: GM crops produce more.
This is untrue. There is no GM crop in the world that gives a higher yield than the existing crop varieties. In fact, the USDA data itself shows that the productivity of GM corn and GM soybean is much less than the existing varieties. So when scientists tell you that GM crops produce more, please be sure they have been paid to say so. They are simply lying.
Arguement 3: GM crops (like Bt cotton/Bt corn) produce their own toxins, and thereby reduce the use of pesticides making the environment (and food) safe.
This is also untrue. Although Bt cotton/Bt corn produce their own toxins, and act more or less like a biological pesticide, all they can do is to reduce crop losses. But even here, we find that the pesticides reduction is only in first or second year, and subsequently farmers have to apply more pesticides. Several studies have shown that in the US also, pesticides use has not decreased.
A classic example here is of the Bt cotton cultivation in China. Bt cotton introduction in China was hailed as a 'silver-bullet.' I remember the scientific journal Science had done a report detailing out how stupendous the gain was for the Chinese farmers from the adoption of Bt cotton. Even then I had challenged the analysis saying that it was done for the first 2-years only whereas the Chinese government did know that pesticides usage had multiplied in the next two years. In other words, four years after the introduction of Bt cotton in China, pesticides use was back to the normal.
A latest study was Cornell University and a Chinese institute have conclusively shown that pesticides usage has increased by 8 per cent over the normal, and Chinese farmers cultivating Bt cotton are actually incurring losses. The study also brings out the change in the pest population with some new insects appearing on the horizon.
In India, the government has not allowed a similar study to be done on Bt cotton. And even the analysis done by CESS Hyderabad that brings out the economics of Bt cotton is fundamentally flawed. I am willing to debate with Mr Mahendra Dev, who is presently the Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), and who did the study on behalf of CESS.
The National Centre for Agricultural Economic Research (NCAP) in New Delhi has now been entrusted with the responsibility to work out the socio-economics of Bt cotton. There is no need to wait for their study. We already know the conclusions that the NCAP study would arrive at.
Economists are no better than the agricultural scientists. If they had done their job honestly, Indian farmers wouldn't have been left high and dry. Agriculture wouldn't have been unremunerative, forcing the farmers to quite in increasing numbers.
Arguement 4: The regulatory mechanism has already evaluated the performance of Bt brinjal, and we should have faith in the system
This is a very dangerous argument. In India (like in the US), the GEAC operates more or less like a rubber stamp for the GM industry. Those who have the most to lose if the science is proved to be wrong are trying their best to emerge as champions of GM science. As George Monbiot says, those who have perversely sought to justify the secretive and chummy ethos that some of the studies GEAC observations reveal. If science is not transparent and accountable, it is not science.
I fully endorse this statement. Although made in the context of climate change, it holds true for GM crops research.
You have already seen my critique of the GEAC report on this blog. You probably already know that CNN-IBN has in one of its exclusive reports quoted the chairman of the EC-II accepting that adequate tests have not been done to know whether Bt brinjal will be safe or not.
And finally a word of advice to American experts like Ronald Herring from Cornell University, who had earlier headed the Department of Government, and has now emerged as a spokesperson for GM technology.
The US, which is the citadel of GM crops in the world, has not been able to solve its own hunger. At the recent World Food Summit at Rome in mid-November, it was clearly brought out that hunger in the US is now at its peak, the highest or the worst (as you see it) in the past 14 years. More than 49 million people in America, that is one in six, live in hunger. If GM crops are so high producing, please try to first remove hunger in your own country.
Instead of wasting your energies trying to convince the policy makers in India, please devote the same time and effort to eradicate hunger in America.
Also, the US agriculture is one of the most environmentally devastating and ecologically suffocating. US agriculture survives on subsidies. Withdraw the Green Box support, and the US agriculture collapses like a house of cards. Also, the US agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to global warming (if measured as a proportion of the US carbon footprint), it is time the Cornell University shift the focus of its research to its own devastating farming systems. I know the Department of Government at Cornell University is simply a covert USAID operation in the name of research. It is high time your government (and your former department) focuses on its own domestic crisis in agriculture.
You will be doing a great service to your own country. If you think your universities have nothing much to offer for your own country, I am willing to help you. Indian farmers would be too willing to show you the sustainable path. Come, let us work to salvage agriculture in the great lands of the Americas.